Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sermon February 23, 2014 Forgiveness Part 2

Matthew 5:38 - 48
Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II and was imprisoned for it.   In her book, Reflections of God’s Glory (page 69), she wrote, “In Africa a man came to a meeting with bandaged hands. I asked him how he had been injured. He said, “My neighbor’s straw roof was on fire; I helped him to put it out and that’s how my hands were burned.”
“Later I heard the whole story. The neighbor hated him and had set his roof on fire while his wife and children were asleep in the hut. They were in great danger. Fortunately, he was able to put out the fire in his house on time. But sparks flew over to the roof of the man who had set the house on fire and his house started to burn. There was no hate in the heart of this Christian; there was love for his enemy and he did everything he could to put out the fire in his neighbor’s house. That is how his own hands were burned.”
My sermon today could be subtitled ‘Forgiveness part 2’.  Last week when we looked at the commandment of Jesus to ‘be perfect as my heavenly Father is perfect’ I noted that the key to understanding that seemingly impossible demand by Jesus is forgiveness.  Jesus knows that we are not able to live perfect lives.  He was well aware of the imperfections of his disciples and everyone he encountered every day.  The commandment in today’s Gospel is just about as impossible as that requirement to be perfect.  Loving your enemy is truly a challenge for people.  I guess we could consider it part of being perfect.  

Loving our neighbours is hard enough sometimes but loving our enemies that seems pretty much impossible.  That story by Corrie ten Boom illustrates how difficult it is.  If I were in that situation I don’t know how I would react and I hope I never have the opportunity to find out.  However, I’m almost certain I would not react as the hero of the story did.  I would probably be filled with hate and the desire for revenge at least at first.  I believe that my reaction would not be unusual.  However, as Christians we are called to love our enemies.  How then is it possible to love someone who does terrible things to you or your loved ones?  I believe that the key to that is forgiveness.  If we cannot forgive the hurts that life and people throw at us there is no possibility of loving not just our enemies but also our neighbours.  More than that, we do not have the possibility of loving ourselves.  

Corrie ten Boom has another statement which addresses the absolute necessity for forgiveness.  She says in Clippings from My Notebook, “Forgiveness is the key that unlocks the door of resentment and the handcuffs of hatred. It is a power that breaks the chains of bitterness and the shackles of selfishness.”  These are powerful images – the door of resentment; the handcuffs of hatred; the chains of bitterness; the shackles of selfishness.  This is exactly what hatred does.  It locks us in a prison with walls that separate us from the love of God.  However, we cannot love or receive love when we are imprisoned by hatred.

We can’t look at forgiveness through rose colored glasses.  True forgiveness is not in any way easy.  The church I believe has done a disservice by talking about forgiveness as if it comes easily to people.   Our culture has been an accomplice in this.  Just forgive and forget we are told as if everyone can do it if we only try – no problem just forgive and forget.  The church has also held up forgiveness as something we can do just as Jesus ask his Heavenly Father to forgive his executioners when he was on cross.  Jesus certainly did it and shows us the need for it but for us imperfect creatures it is another situation indeed.  There was a story in the news a few years ago which illustrates this.  A Church of England priest – a woman – had given up her ordained status – given up as a priest because she could not bring herself to forgive the person who murdered her son.  She believed that as a priest she was called to forgive as her Saviour had forgiven those who were in the act of executing him.  Despite all her efforts she found it impossible. The account did not go into detail but I have no doubt that this decision came after doing all she could to forgive that murderer.  I deeply regret that she was not able to find forgiveness but I admire her decision.  I also regret her decision because I’m sure she was a wonderful priest and a good shepherd of her flock.  I hope and pray she has been able to find forgiveness in her heart in the intervening years.  

Let us not have any illusions about how difficult true forgiveness is.    My experience of it confirms this.  I have struggled to let go of resentment and anger at people who have hurt me in the past.  Just when I thought I had achieved it, that dark force of resentment crept up on me and took possession of me.  That often happens in the middle of the night when our ego based defenses are at their weakest.  However, forgiveness is absolutely necessary if we are to become the loving people that God intends us to be.  The love of God does have the power to enable us to forgive and to set us free from the hatred and bitterness and resentment that imprisons us and kills our souls.  I want to close with a dream – a prayer really that I discovered when I was in the Holy Land some years ago on pilgrimage with fellow clergy.  We toured the Holocaust museum.  I was moved deeply by what I experienced there – it is a very powerful memorial to the terrible results of hate.  Of all I saw and experienced the thing that affected me the most was the account entitled, Dream of Abramek Kaplowics age 14 murdered at Auschwitz: 

When I grow up and get to be twenty I’ll travel and see the world of plenty.  In a bird with an engine I will set myself down, take off and fly into space, far above the ground.  I’ll fly, I’ll cruise and soar high above the world so lovely in the sky. And so delighted by all the world’s charms, into the heavens I will take off and not have a bother.  The cloud is my sister, the wind my brother.
Abramek could have been consumed with hatred for those who imprisoned him and ultimately murdered him.  However, rather than being chained to hatred he was able to dream of being set free and soaring into the heavens on a journey to his spiritual home. 

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